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An Obsessive Quest to Make People See

After antique collector James Allen discovered scores of lynching photos, black Americans were grateful--and confused. Was his motive compassion--or something else?

August 27, 2000|J.R. MOEHRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — There isn't room for everyone who wants to see.

The gallery can't hold more than a dozen people at a time, so the crowds who come each day to see the exhibit must wait. Today, one of the coldest days of the year, the wait is three hours, and still the line stretches down the block.

The exhibit features 68 vivid photos of American lynchings. There is a photo of Frank Embree, a black man whipped across his legs and back and chest, then hanged. There is a photo of Lee Hall, a black man shot, then hanged, his ears cut off. There is a photo of Bennie Simmons, a black man hanged, then burned alive, then shot to pieces. There are photos of men and women, hanging from trees and bridges and telephone poles, most of them black--a small number of the 5,000 blacks killed by white mobs, mostly between 1880 and 1940, mostly in the South.

Most of the people waiting to see the photos are black too, though circulating among them is a man as white as the snowflakes wafting through the February air. He is James Allen, the 46-year-old owner of the photos, the well-known antique collector from Atlanta who set out to use his collecting skills to make people see, to find lynching photos that would "shock the country." Judging from the line outside this gallery on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, he did just that. Judging from the look in Allen's eyes--which are blue and big behind Harry Potter glasses--he shocked himself as well.

As the gallery closes for the day, Allen is exhausted. He walks across the street for a cup of coffee, but the moment he takes a sip, his cellular phone rings.

"Who?" he says into the phone. "Really? Are you sure? OK, I'll be right over."

He hangs up and stares.

"Stevie Wonder is across the street," he says. "He wants to see the photos."

Allen hurries back to the gallery, and there, just inside the door, wearing a full-length black overcoat and dark sunglasses, is the famous musical artist, who has been blind since birth. He is flanked by two friends.

"Mr. Allen?" one of the friends asks. "This is Steve Wonder."

They shake hands.

"Steve was hoping you could describe your photographs to him," the friend says.

"Sure," Allen says.

He leads Wonder inside, to the first set of photos on the wall.

"I'm going to be graphic," Allen warns.

"That's OK," Wonder says.

Allen talks slowly, deliberately, about a photo of a black man, Will James. He tells how thousands turned out to see James hanged in the center of Cairo, Ill., in 1909. He tells how, when the rope broke, the mob riddled James with bullets, then burned him, then cut off his head. He describes a photo of the head, jabbed onto a stake and set at the edge of town.

Wonder says nothing, while his friends look at each other in horror.

Allen leads Wonder to the next photo, and the next. Wonder seems bewildered, as if he can't comprehend all that Allen is saying. When Allen steps away to speak with someone else, Wonder's friends try.

"It's like his neck is broken," a friend whispers to Wonder, "and his upper body is standing straight."

The friend twists Wonder's head, to simulate a broken neck. He makes Wonder's arms go slack, arranges Wonder's body to look like the hanged man in the photo before him. Now Wonder seems to understand. Now he seems to feel the image, to see it.

Allen returns, and Wonder leans into him.

"Can I ask you a question?" Wonder says.

"Yes," Allen says.

"What inspired you to do this?"

It's the first time a black person has asked this question, asked it pointedly, with an audience gathered to hear. But it won't be the last. As thousands of Americans, blacks in particular, confront Allen's horrifying collection of photos, they will often react by confronting Allen himself. Some will be angry. Others will be more like Wonder: They will shake Allen's hand warmly and thank him for what he's done--then ask in the next breath why he did it.

Was he motivated by compassion--or money? Is he a crusader--or a voyeur?

Faced with black anger and suspicion, Allen will tend to look wounded. He will pause and close his eyes and struggle to make his motives clear. After devoting years to the search for photos of lynchings, there will be days when it all feels secondary to this other search, for the best way to explain himself, for the right words to allay the fears of people he set out to help.

In the end, however, the two searches will seem the same--each an obsessive quest to make people see.

A Macabre Market

The first photo was a white man, Leo Frank. A Jewish factory manager falsely accused of killing a young girl, he was lynched in 1915, in the woods north of Atlanta. Nearly 65 years later, a photo of the lynching fell into Allen's hands.

Not just a photo. A postcard.

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